A Russian court in the Far Eastern Federal District has ordered all local internet service providers to block access to Youtube and four other websites which it believes harbour and promote “extremist” views.
The Komsomolsky-on-Amur court wanted the sites banned because Hitler’s writings, such as Mein Kampf, were available to read, while others had a video uploaded entitled “Russia for Russians”, which is a slogan used by far right groups in the country.
A few other countries have banned Youtube in recent years. In 2007 Thailand banned the site after a user uploaded a short film which showed grafitti over a picture of Thailand’s king. Insulting the king is illegal there and may result in several years of imprisonment. So the country decided to ban Youtube after Google, which likes to appear vocal on issues of free speech and censorship, refused to delete the video.
A more recent incident in May of this year had Pakistan ban Youtube, along with other popular websites like Facebook, Wikipedia, and Flickr. Pakistan said that Youtube was broadcasting “sacrilegious content” and needed to be banned. It raises serious questions about the balance between free speech and respect for cultural differences, and where, if anywhere, we draw the line.
In Russia, however, the internet service providers are not on board with the Youtube ban. At least one ISP, Rosnet, has said that it is appealing the ruling.
New laws were passed in Russia in early July which are aimed at curbing extremist views and propaganda, but they have been widely criticised by human rights activists and freedom of speech groups, which believe the laws in and of themselves are extreme.
The Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights group in Russia, is staunchly against the new laws which it believes are liable to abuse. It did not agree that a five year sentence was warranted for swearing at a foreign person, for example, which the laws potentially allow.
This latest step is a further sign of how far these measures can be taken.
Last year Russia banned gambling, hunting down and closing any previously legal casinos operating within the country. In efforts to tackle problems within its society it is becoming closer to policing the activities of all its citizens, which is a worrying sign for anyone concerned with democracy and free speech. But plenty of countries in the West raise eyebrows too.